Update on the Insults: A Battle Over a Book: Haym Soloveitchik v. Talya Fishman

[This post is edited and republished from my original post of 12/18/2012]

My once-upon-a-time teacher at Yeshiva University has panned a recent book about rabbinic cultural development.

It's a veritable battle over a book, Haym Soloveitchik v. Talya Fishman.

The book is Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures (Jewish Culture and Contexts).

The review by Haym is locked away to subscribers only at the Jewish Review of Books. I infer from hearsay and from the rejoinder that it is quite negative. (see below for details.)

Fishman is busy issuing several rejoinders to the review, the first part is here - Response to Haym Soloveitchik “The People of the Book: Since When?” in Jewish Review of Books, Winter 2012, pp. 14-18.

She starts off, "Reading Professor Soloveitchik’s remarks, I was unable to recognize the book that I wrote." She then makes a methodical case for the inaccuracies and errors of Haym's review.

Haym, near the beginning of his review - the part not hidden by JRB - says this: "The standard version of when, where, and how the Talmud attained its normative standing runs like this: Sometime between the years 600 and 725 C.E. a group of mostly anonymous scholars known as savoraim collected and edited a vast number of the halakhic discussions that had taken place in the rabbinic academies of Mesopotamia from 200 until the middle of the 5th century. The result was the Babylonian Talmud (the Bavli)."

That whole long sentence is fictional not factual. I am sure that anonymous people did no such thing, and if they did, that can never be proven or disproved because they are anonymous! What utter nonsense. But the reliance on the anonymous authority and his activity (we know how busy anonymous was) is the most obvious primary nonsense element of rabbinic discourse. Haym invokes the busy accomplishments of "a group of mostly anonymous scholars" - and how impressive it is to us that they were busy and yet anonymous at the same time.

Why do I invoke such sarcasm? Because anonymity is a manipulative device to cloak the sources of authority and prevent any challenge to it. It should never be used in a scholarly narrative. Authors and editors work hard and deserve their accolades or criticism.

I grew up believing that Ravina and Rav Ashi edited the Bavli. That still works for me. There were no Savoraim in the story that I was told and that I have no reason to doubt.

My most authoritative teacher was Haym's dad, the Rav. I am sure he endorsed the real "standard version" of when the Talmud was published and by whom it was edited, and that its "normative standing" was immediate.

And by the way, "normative standing" is in the eye of the beholder. Any individual Jew can deviate from any Talmudic precept that they wish and their "normative" status remains the same. They remain a Jew, they remain Jewish and their God still loves them. Unless they write a nasty review of a worthy book.

Update: My friend David sent me Haym's JBR review, which concludes as follows:
...A work of this sort usually needs little review; a brief notice in a scholarly journal and it sinks under the weight of its own insuficiencies. And so I thought when I read Becoming the People of the Talmud with bewilderment upon its appearance last spring. Instead—as I noted at the outset, it received the Jewish Book Council’s prestigious Nahum M. Sarna Memorial National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship, one that has been given in recent years to Moshe Idel, Elliot Wolfson, and Dan Miron. The most charitable construction that can be put on the award is that the committee never read the book. It is also possible that its members (whose identities are not made public) know even less of rabbinics than does the recipient. Both accounts leave unexplained, however, why a committee would give an award to a book that it had not read, or, alternatively, why a committee would bestow an award upon a book in a field about which it knows nothing.

Nahum M. Sarna, the outstanding scholar whose name graces the prize the Jewish Book Council awarded, was a biblicist, however, like one or two other academicians of the past generation, he had a deep familiarity with the entire classical Jewish literature. His memory deserves better, as does Jewish studies.
There is no excuse for Haym to issue this closing attack on the integrity and competence of the Jewish Book Council. And even worse, it boggles my imagination that JRB or any professional journal would publish such awful and ignorant words of insult.

Talmudic Analysis
The end vitiates the remainder of the review, which may contain valid critiques of the book. But in my view they are not the right critiques.

What needs to be examined is the basic notion of the "normative standing" of the Talmud for Jews. First off, I am not sure what "normative" behavior was or is. Especially in a decentralized, tribalized and otherwise fragmented set of communities, the whole idea of "normative" Judaism holds little water unless and until it is spelled out.

When I taught medieval Judaism, I never taught that the Talmud was "normative" because I did not know what that could or would mean. I did teach a more nuanced account of the activity of that era within the realms of Judaic rabbinic creativity. The means of Jews learning what Judaism taught was not the Talmud in any direct Protestant-like way. The more ancient Talmud was filtered heavily by the medieval authors of commentaries, codes and responsa. Oral or written, the point is that the medieval rabbis determined which parts of the Torah and Talmud were relevant to their times, which were not, how they related, and how they might be disseminated and enforced.

The story of the middle ages is not how Jews became the people of the Talmud. It is a narrative about how the writers of commentaries, codes and responsa helped to navigate some communities through the everyday and traumatic moments of their religious, social and personal lives.

No matter how much we venerate those treatises, live people can not be anything "of" dead books. And trying to craft a story of how they are "of" inert codexes makes no sense to me and its details are boring at best.

That is the main cognitive methodological logical and dramatic error I find in both the learned book  and the pungent review under scrutiny. They fail to account for the  life and personality of the Judaism of that age.

Continue the story here.

[Slightly edited and republished from my original post of 12/18/2012]

1 comment:

Jeffrey Woolf said...

I think you're as over the top on this as Prof. Soloveitchik (from the other angle). I see absolutely no evidence of the Talmud not sitting at the center of Jewish religious life from the 8th/9th century onward. It may not have been the exclusive source of halakhic truth, but it was definitely primus inter pares (unles you include the Karaite spectrum). All of that is really irrelevent to the questions of redaction that you raise (and which might also be upended if HaLivni's newest student proves that the סתמא is actually a 4th century, not a sixth century) development.